Following the orgy of violence in Jos in September 2001 various explanations were pondered for the cold-hearted bloodletting that disrobed the city of the garment of innocence it once wore. Of all those, two in my opinion, stood out: politicians were blamed for abdicating their duty and for inciting the people against each other; and the media were accused of inflaming the tense situation. Being a journalist and student of conflict reporting/resolution I shall expound the second issue more.
At a point during the recurrent violence in Plateau state the then Governor Joshua Dariye specifically accused a newspaper of waging a holy war against his regime to mark 200 years of Sheikh Shehu Usman Dan Fodio’s Jihad in Northern Nigeria. Similarly, some commentators not only parried back the accusation at Dariye, but also pointed out the complicity of the media from the two divides in the crisis.
Otherness is an endemic feature of politics in Nigeria, including the politics of reporting ethnic and religious conflicts. It determines the prism through which reports are tailored, the frames by which heroes and villains are viewed and, most importantly, sways the opinion of readers/audience. And in the case of the endless Plateau conflict is has continued to provide the fuel that keeps the violence raging, several years after it was ignited.
In reporting crises linked to ethnicity or religion, which in any case are always entwined, the media constitute a major platform for exhibiting and promoting the ‘us’ and ‘them’ syndrome. It was against this backdrop that the esteemed American Professor Rosalind Hackett once observed that the media in Nigeria do not only shape attitudes but constitute a principal location for the promotion of religious intolerance.
The journalistic process is, as such, often fraught with deliberate stereotyping. This, as was previously argued in this column, could be because of certain pressures journalists face in the course of carrying out their duty. But it does not justify this act of misuse of professional licence.
One of the reasons the Plateau conflict defies solutions is the failure to properly diagnose the problem and sufficiently understand the causes. And because the problem has not been understood the right solutions have yet to be administered. Although there is lukewarm on the part of the government the media have also refused to play their watchdog role to prod the government to act responsibly.
After each of the violence commissions are set up and, as usual, mandated to look into the remote and immediate causes, with a view to making sure final solutions are proffered. None of the findings, if there are ever any, are implemented. No one recalls why the commissions are set up or what they are asked to do until the next bout of violence when a new one is constituted and made to pass through the same routine. The media remain equally docile except, of course, when it comes to repeatedly taking sides in the crises and increasing the possibility of violence towards some people.
The recent attacks on some villages in Barkin Ladi and Riyom Local Government Areas of Plateau state are an example of where the media played an amplifying role. The reports were generally inconsistent and misleading about what actually caused the death of Senator Gyang Dalyop Datong and Gyang Fulani.
An initial version had claimed that both men were shot and killed by Fulani herdsmen during the mass burial of victims of previous attacks. But it later emerged that they were neither shot nor were the attackers Fulani herdsmen. The group Jama’atu Ahali Sunna Lil-dawati wal Jihad reportedly owned up.
Whereas the Plateau state Commissioner of Information, Abraham Yiljap released a statement to the media confirming the shooting, the Joint Task Force (JTF) in the state struggled to provide the correct version. It was only the next day that one of the survivors, Rep Simon Mwadkon, corroborated the JTF claim that the men did not die as a result of bullet wounds but due to exhaustion.
Earlier, Ruben Abati, himself a very senior journalist before becoming the spokesman of President Jonathan, had issued a press release on behalf of his principal, chorusing the claim that Senator Datong was shot and killed during the attack on the mourners. It also contained an order by the president to security agencies to “fish out” those responsible for the “cruel and regrettable” killing of the Senator.
However, since the true version of the story and the correct identity of those behind the killings surfaced not much has happened to the previous accounts of the attack. For instance, no one has apologised for wrongly blaming Fulani herdsmen and the reckless reports that probably provoked reprisal attacks.
It reminds one of former Police Commissioner Greg Anyanting’s allegation that the violence in Jos on 17 January 2010 was caused by a group of Muslims who attacked worshippers at St Michael’s Church without any provocation. The statement was, soon afterwards, endlessly broadcast by some sections of the electronic strand of the media just as some newspapers published it the next day without independent checks, regardless of the consequence. In the end the violence was spread further, leading to the massacres in Kuru Karama, Kaduna Vom and Dogo Na Hauwa.
Again, despite Rep Mwadkon’s disclosure more reports continue to come out claiming that killings are still going on in some villages in the two LGAs, suggesting that there’s a perpetual siege to which the government and security agencies (including the JTF) have been unable to respond. There have also been claims of the discovery of burnt corpses whose numbers range from 50 to 140.
The media need to, once again, pause and have a rethink of their role in the crises on the plateau. The last 10 years have been particularly horrendous for the people of the state, where thousands of lives have been lost and property worth several billions of naira destroyed. Hundreds of thousands of persons have also been displaced from their homes and effectively made refugees in their country.
If we agree with Rosen’s suggestion that public interest journalism is a combination of a theory and a practice that seeks to promote the overriding importance of improving public life, then there is a need for a real reassessment of our commitment to this. And there is no better situation to test this than the case of Plateau state. Enough blood has been spilled.
Aliyu Musa, PhD
Desmond Tutu Centre for War and Peace Studies
Liverpool Hope University
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